3. Midnight Encounter

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Chapter III

Midnight Encounter


I could not sleep. Andy’s strange disappearance really had me worried. Everyone believed the traveler had kidnapped him; however, I knew better. We had been together when we first saw the stranger, and I was certain that he had followed behind me as I fled to safety. And while there had been no sign of Andy when I returned to the location of our encounter, I was still certain that no one was with the stranger, when I sighted him for a second time and proceeded to trail him on his course.

“Where is, Andy,” I kept asking myself?

“Was he hurt? Lost? Maybe hiding? Or could he, could he be dea…?”

I refused allow that word cross my lips. I refused to think such a thought. He had to be out there, somewhere. I could not let my friend down in his time of need.

Then an unusual thought struck, “What if for some reason, he chose not to come back to camp?”

“What if he’d heard the feather’s message,” I reasoned? “He had a different feather. Maybe the stranger lost control of the feather which Andy had picked up. Maybe it talked him into running away. If so, Andy could really be in some sort of danger. I had to go out and find him before it was too late.”

Hurriedly, I jumped up and gathered the things I feared I may need for this dread task; my jacket, leather pouch, a small rope, and my beast club – a small petrified cane which I had found buried in the stream as we returned to camp one day. Andy and I noticed the tip of the stone rod, at the same time, as we drank from the small brook. A nasty fight ensued as we both claimed ownership. Deacon came upon us wrestling in the shallow water. He quickly took control of the situation and the cane. The three of us found ourselves going in different directions; Andy, me, and the stone cane.

Poor Andy landed face first against the gravel bank, putting a nasty scratch on the left side of his face. My flight proved better in two ways. First, my patted bottom took the brunt of my own touch down. And better yet; I caught the flight path of the cane as it sailed through the air. It struck a large boulder first, snapping the end. The final resting place in the ivy was known only to me. Later when Andy and I had reaffirmed our friendship, I secretly retrieved my prize. As a result of the crash with the boulder, the cane’s tip now sported a sharp point. After smuggling the weapon back into my tent, I hid it from everyone, even my best friend. If only we could share a secret now.

My though snapped back to the present with the faint cry of a child in a distant tent. Solo’s late talks seemed to spark nightmares for the smaller children in camp. I don’t think it was intentional, but Solo did speak his mind – or as he proclaimed the unbridled message of the King. I surveyed the items which I had gathered. This was all that I needed. Or at least all I could carry. Taking a deep breath, I peeked through the gap in the tent flap. All was quite and the coast clear – the only sounds traveling through the night air now was the assorted snores coming from the darkened tents. Slowly, I slipped from the security of my tent, past the fading glow of the dying campfire, and toward the outer parameter of the camp.

Not even the driving urge to come to Andy’s aid; however, could force me into taking those last few dread steps into the unknown darkness of the night forest. I gave the appearance of a sentry on patrol, walking the boundary zone while surveying the immediate grounds, working to build my courage. Jumping with every hoot or yelp coming from the night critters, I cursed myself for being such a yellow coward. My mind became a playground for the imagination. Bushes moved. Branches shifted. Tree tops danced. A distant owl’s call taunted all the cowards of the forest.

Then suddenly, I caught a movement through the corner of my eye – the ghostly appearance of a man.

“Who’s there?” I questioned in my mind, but the words never materialized across my lips?

Again; I tried with minimal improvement. “Who’s there?” the words still barely audible.

As I strained to focus my eyes in the darkness, I locked in on the shadowy figure in the distance. Whoever it was stood motionless, not responding to my cowardly challenge. I couldn’t move, frozen fear. Holding my chest, I feared my throbbing heart would jump from my body and flee the scene. Straining, I refocused on the sinister silhouette. His burning red eyes glared back in defiance. Suddenly I realized, this vicious beast could be a threat to the entire camp.

“You beast, you wicked beast,” I repeated.

Then the obvious struck me, “Beast! That’s right, I have a beast club.”

I reached down to my side and felt the cold stone shaft, tucked between my pants and rope belt. It was time to use the weapon which I had been blessed to find.

Mustering a glimmer of courage; I warned the adversary, “I have a beast club here. See!” I grasped hold of the weapon and thrust the stone rod high over my head.

“This club has a very sharp point. It could easily kill something. It could kill whatever you are. I’m warning you, you better go back to your cave. Or wherever you stay?”

Despite my threatening bluff, the phantom held his ground. He just stood there, not saying a word. Simply, stood there not saying a word. His silence was frightening in its self. Then that small glimmer of courage which I’d been building, melted at a single thought, “The traveler. It’s the traveler.”

I slowly backed away giving ground, in order, to gain some precious seconds – anticipating his charge. My retreat halted abruptly as the sharp prod made contact with the center of my back. I sank to a new low. Not only had I been captured, but I had allowed the entire camp to fall under siege. About to drop my weapon; a weak plea summoned faintly from the darkness. I strained as the gentle breeze seemed to bring in the cry. “Heppp.”

A second later, “Heppp.”

Again, “Heppp.”

“It’s Andy,” my mind quickly reasoned. “He’s calling to me for help.”

The cry of a friend in trouble shattered the fear which had smothered my emotions. Suddenly, I whirled in one swift motion. The dead limb which had been square in the center of my back soared through the air as my beast club made impact. I failed to notice the small sapling which had been my captor, now stood defenseless, as I completed the defensive revolution and charged the shadowy stranger.

Pure instinct drove me in the attack. As I neared my foe, I could only close my eyes and lunge with the hope my sharp tipped weapon would strike its target. At impact; as I tore right through the figure, a piercing scream filled the air. “Whaaaak! Whaaaaaaaaak!

Hitting the ground, I crash into an old abandon fruit cart. The squuuuisk, squuuisk, squuuuisk sound of an owl’s flapping wings beat through the night air. A frightened owl had taken flight from the attack, and now sought a more distant and obscure roost. Dazed, I could only lie there looking up at the cart’s gateless hinge rocking in the slight breeze. Heeep. Heeeeep. It kept repeating. Relieved! Embarrassed! Yet somewhat depressed! I stared up at the mysterious figure, turned innocent victim – a girl’s dress, hung to dry in the night’s gentle breeze on the fruit cart handle. I picked myself up and headed in the darkness of the forest, to embarrassed to be frightened, any longer.

Trudging slowly through the night forest, I swatted tree branches with the small stick I’d picked up along the way. My beast cane had been shattered in the failed rescue attempt. Depression had drawn me so low, I was hardly aware of my surroundings. However, the sound of distant voices slowly creped into my thought process. The sound grew louder as I proceeded. Finally, my brain kicked in and warned, “Dummy, there’s someone out there!”

I stopped, shaking my head. Then a look of concern came across my face. “Where are they,” I questioned?

Slowly turning, I honed in on the direction of the voices.

“Yeah, they’re over in that clearing,” I concluded.

Cautiously, I lower my body and crept in the direction of the voices. They were still too far to distinguish what was being said. But as I inched forward a degree of familiarity in the tone came through.

As I quietly reached the edge of the clearing, three figures sat with their backs to me around a small fire. The half full moon provided some light, but the glow from the small fire made it difficult to focus my eyes.

The clearing was somewhat rectangular, maybe fifty by eighty feet with the men sitting off center and away from me. They continued to speak softly. And though the word weren’t audible, I recognize the tone as one spoke. I searched my mind to place that voice, but knew I would need to swing around to the opposite side of the clearing to understand or recognize anyone.

Before moving, I studied the layout. The men sat, maybe thirty feet in front of me. To my left, the space was open except for one lone boulder jutting from the ground. To my right was the biggest threat, a little wagon with a sleeping donkey. Fearing I may wake the donkey, I headed to my left, back a bit from the clearing.

Within a few silent moments, I had maneuvered into position. Squatted low within the cover of a fruitless berry bush, I chose not to center myself with them for fear of being seen or disturbing the sleeping donkey. I was actually not any nearer to them than before, but their voices were no longer muffled. Staining, I could pick up part of the conversation. They sat in a rough semicircle. I could make out the man furtherest from me, and I was certain I had never seen him before. As he spoke, his voice was unfamiliar. The man nearest me was positioned with his back somewhat to me and only a small portion of his side view visible. He also totally blocked the middle man from my view.

Realizing I must move again if I was to identify these men, I slowly turned and started to duck walk to my left before I froze in my steps. They hit me simultaneously – the second cart in the clearing and the identity of the middle man. The cart was our camp cart and the middle man, Solo.

“So if that’s Solo then the guy nearest me must be Deacon,” I reasoned.

“And the stranger must be a soldier of the King,” I determined as the excitement bubbled within.

“Me! Eye witnessing Solo’s meeting with the King’s soldier! How fortunate could a body get?”

Then I reasoned, “Solo and this soldier would be quite angry should they catch me eavesdropping on an important message.”

Not knowing how to react, I quietly sat and listened.

Take me for a fool,” Solo stated. “Four gold and six silver pieces for what I’ve brought you. Huh!”

“Solo, my friend,” the soldier countered. “You take your business way too seriously. You’ve only arrived and you want to haggle over the price of berries. Come! First I have a little something I’d like you and our brother, Deacon, to sample.”

The soldier rose from his seat and walked over to his cart.

Mumbling and cursing, he dug about beneath the wagon seat.

Thinking to myself as he searched, “Odd behavior for a soldier of the King.”

“Ah! There you are,” he laughingly proclaimed. “Thought I’d lost you.”

Unable to see what he had retrieved from the wagon, I watched curiously as he returned to the company of Solo and Deacon.

“Here ole friend,” he said as he offered a gray ceramic jug to Solo. “Let me offer you taste of your labor.”

Accepting the jug, Solo turned it up and took a long swig of the beverage.

“What did he mean by that,” I thought as Solo then passed the jug to Deacon.

“A fine brew, Necrom!” Solo commented approvingly as Deacon followed and took perhaps a longer offering than Solo.

Bringing the jug from the upright position; Deacon proclaimed, “Oh, yeah! Got to be some of the best,” as he nodded his head in agreement.

Passing the jug back, Deacon released a long, deep belch in Necrom’s vicinity. Solo noted the displeasure in his host’s expression, and quickly shot a look of stern disapproval which stung even a person as crude as Deacon. The collector lower his head, not speaking again for the remainder of the meeting.

Wiping the mouth of the jug with his sleeve, Necrom capped the bottle and placed it beside him.

“You like! Hey!”

Nodding his approval; Solo restate the verdict, “Yes, Necrom!

Your work with the fruit is unsurpassed.”

“Well I felt it only fair you sample what you’ve given me to work with.”

Rising from his seat again; the odd soldier suggested, “Come, my friend. Let’s see what you’ve brought, tonight.”

Solo rose to his feet and followed Necrom over to the camp cart. They picked, squeezed, and sampled the precious fruit loaded on the cart. The excitement started to bubble up again as I anticipated the soldier reaction to my camp’s offering to the King.

My spirit crashed; however, when the sour look of disapproval streak across Necrom’s face. Spitting the apparently inappropriate offering to the ground; he replied, “Whew! Solo, whereever did you find these bitter berries?”

“Oh, the King has rejected the fruit,” I moaned to myself.

Defensively; Solo responded, “Ah, come now Necrom. You know the quality of fruit has declined drastically these last few days. Here sample some of these over here.” Reassuringly; Solo added, “You’ll find them much sweeter.”

Necrom tasted of the fruit solo offered.

“Good,” I thought. “At least, he didn’t spit it out”

I was a bit surprised at Solo’s boldness as he addressed the King’s soldier.

“Necrom, you haven’t much choice. No one else will offer you any better fruit. And Deacon and I can always look elsewhere, you well know. So let’s make it simple, the amount we discussed earlier, and the cargo is yours.”

The soldier scratched his chin and mumbled a few obscenities before motioning Solo to follow him to his wagon. He scratched about again under his seat, pulled a small pouch from the mess, and poured the contents on the wagon seat. He and Solo haggle a moment longer over something before Solo finally motioned Deacon over to the camp cart. Deacon slowly began unloading the fruit from the camp cart over to soldier’s wagon. Meanwhile, Necrom scooted the same objects he had dumped on the wagon seat into his hand and offered them to Solo. Accepting them, he placed them in his pouch. Necrom picked up the remainder, placing them back where he’d gotten them.

He removed another jug from the wagon and nodded Solo in the direction of a fallen tree. They drank from the jug while Deacon finished his task.

With the camp cart empty, Deacon went to the front and pulled the cart over to the edge of the clearing. There he stopped and silently awaited further instruction. Moments later, he too slept against his cart.

Draining the content of the jug, Solo and Necrom stood bidding one another farewell. The soldier reclaimed the jug beside the smoldering fire and crawled into his wagon. Solo walked over in the direction the camp cart. A sharp snap from the soldier’s whip roused both beasts to life. The two vehicles lumbered off in their respective directions.

The encounter had proven quite a disappointment. No stirring message from the King. No eloquent words exchanged. No horses dress for battle. The King’s soldier didn’t even carry a sword. The meeting had taken on the appearance of an ordinary business transaction between ordinary men.

“I know,” I concluded. “This Necrom isn’t a soldier of the King, he is only a lowly servant dispatched to collect the berries each night. A soldier would come only when an important message must be relay. Necrom just travels from camp to camp collecting berries.”

“Wait! If he travels round the countryside, he may have seen Andy.” I deduced. Gathering my things, I headed after Necrom and his wagon.

Sorry! This chapter still being edited – not ready to load, yet.


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